Thinking of Thanksgiving: Hosting a Big Dinner

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Many of today’s women don’t know the ins and outs of home making. Most schools no longer teach home economics. And if your own mother worked outside the home, chances are you may not have grown up with much teaching in the way of housekeeping and meal preparation.

These are not obsolete skills. It’s good to know the basics; no matter your full-time profession. We still need clean clothes and good food to eat. And we can’t all be Martha.

While I am by no means an expert in home ec, it’s kind of been a hobby of mine since I was a young girl. I loved reading the Ginnie and Geneva books, especially the one about the cooking contest. My mom still has the recipe cards that I painstakingly copied from her yellow Pillsbury cookbook. As soon as I could read, I wanted to cook. And maintaining a clean, organized home has been an ongoing pursuit of mine for years. Obviously, I often fail miserably, but I’ll die trying.

One of the tasks that can be daunting to the Woman of the House is the idea of preparing a large dinner. And, this month the stakes are high, especially if this is your first Thanksgiving meal to prepare. You’re not alone. There are ladies everywhere wondering what in the world will the meal look like come that final Thursday. Here are some suggestions.

Planning a Big Dinner:
1. Keep the menu simple. If you aren’t accustomed to cooking many dishes at one time, don’t go overboard. Do not copy the elaborate menu from Froofoo Meals Magazine. Do not drive yourself crazy. Instead, stick to the basics: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetable, rolls, dessert. As you grow more experienced at putting on a big shindig, you can work more things in.

2. Use convenience items when possible. Again, don’t try too much on your own. Next year you can make rolls from scratch. This year, just go for the “brown and serve” variety. You could virtually pick up all aspects of the meal premade. But, if you are trying to work into a DIY Feast, choose a few items to prepare on your own. I’m not saying let Hamburger Helper do the work. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew!

3. Delegate. Feel free to assign a dish to each guest to bring. A good question to ask is “What makes the holiday special for you?” Ask your guest to bring that item. It’s a great way to learn about one another and prompts good storytelling.

4. Set a pretty table. When I worked in catering, the motto was, Presentation is Everything. While it’s not everything, it is important. So take some time to make the table setting pretty. Include cloth napkins, nice dishes and flatware, water glasses, and some type of flower arrangement. A low-lying arrangement is best so as not to block diners’ views of one another. Plan this out a week in advance so that you’re not impersonating a Thanksgiving turkey, you know, running around like your head’s been chopped off.

5. Plan your minutes. Write out a time-table, starting at serving time and working backward. Determine how long it takes to cook each item and what temperature it needs. If you can see everything on paper, you can be more efficient in your oven use. And the oven certainly gets a workout on Turkey Day.

6. Set out some munchies. Prepare some type of appetizer so that your guests aren’t famished in case dinner takes a little longer than you expect. My mom always had a relish tray. Plus, you’re going to want/need something to nibble on as you work. Turn on your favorite tunes, too!

7. Have a backup plan. Stash a lasagna and garlic bread or “other freezer meal” in your freezer – just in case. No, you probably won’t need it. But, if dinner’s a total bomb, it will be nice to bring out something, even if it doesn’t fit the theme. Someday it will make a great story to tell!

8. Smile. Things may not turn out as you hope. But, if you can keep a smile on your face, you will be the hostess with the mostest.

Have I forgotten anything? Got a great tip? Got a horror story to laugh about? Share it in the comments!

This post was originally published last November. With a few edits, I’m running it again as a help and encouragement to you. It is also linked at Works for Me Wednesday where you can share what, well, works for you!

About Jessica Fisher

I believe you can get great meals on the table -- and still keep that pretty smile on your face.

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  1. The Real Me! says:

    When I was a kid growing up my Mom always had Thanksgiving dinner around 1 oclock and I just remember her running around, getting up early to put the turkey etc. When I got married and took over preparing and hosting Thanksgiving dinner I thought I had to do the same thing. Well it stressed me out so one year I simply changed the time from 1 to 5 o'clock and I was able to enjoy the day and take a bit more time to get things ready to go. No more running around and stressed out for me just by simply changing the time! (I can't say that my Dad is 100% on board with it but then again he has no idea how much work actually goes into it!) LOL
    Great tips my friend.

  2. I always make sure that I "stagger" the heat source needed for different components of the meal. For example:
    Ham or Turkey-Oven
    Sweet Potato Casserole-Oven
    Green Beans-Cooktop
    Macaroni Pie-Crock pot

    You get the idea. This hit me years ago as I was working out a reverse-schedule for a big meal (your point 5 above). It wasn't all going to fit, so I changed my sides to spread it out a little.

  3. The thing I struggle most with is getting everything to the table HOT. How do you do it? Something is always cold by the time we sit down to eat.

  4. 1) 1 a.m.??? You GO, girl!!
    2) This post is JUST what I needed; we've always eaten "when everything was ready" and I'm SO excited to have a PLAN!!! Thanks, Jessica!!

  5. I would like to add that people not think that the entire meal needs to be made that day. Over the years my mother and I have learned what works out made ahead of time. It turns out much of our delicious meal can be ready before that day. With one oven and 40 people for dinner, this goes a long way in the enjoyment of the day. For example the mashed potatoes are made ahead and put in the crockpot the morning of. 1 turkey (and some stuffing) is made ahead, sliced, drizzled with gravy and reheated in a roaster oven on the day-and it tastes GREAT. Celery and onions are diced and ready to go for the turkey and stuffing that are prepared on the day. The pies are ready and the tables that can be set are ready before Thanksgiving. Everyone enjoys the day and the food.

  6. One thing that has helped me with the oven space issue is to use a sit-on-the-counter electric roasting pan. It cooks a great turkey—but doesn't brown the skin. It also will cook a wonderful spiral sliced ham. I usually sit this on my washer in the laundry room, so it is more out of the way. It cooks and then we slice and serve. It is a wonderful addition to the kitchen and frees up the oven for all the side dishes and desserts.

  7. Oh I am so thankful to have this year off from hosting. I have done it for the past 3 years, but this year said I need a break! But we will be making a turkey dinner for home 🙂

  8. No, I think you got everything covered for a successful Thanksgiving holiday:-)

  9. The Domestic Contessa says:

    My tip is to make good use of your crockpot in the meal prep! I've learned that the less you have to do at the last minute, the better!

    I recently found a recipe for mashed potatoes in the crockpot which I'm planning to use this year!

  10. I don't know if it qualifies as a "horror story," but I suppose I can the year I hosted and my uncle decided to nail the trim on my kitchen cabinet, the one right above the stove, in the middle of all the cooks in the kitchen trying to put the finishing touches on Thanksgiving dinner.

  11. I'm hosting Christmas for the first time this year, but I'm already starting to plan so these tips are very helpful.

    I also like the suggestion of a couple of the commenters to use the crockpot. I never knew you could do mashed potatoes in there.

  12. One tip I would share is to remember to give your turkey/ham enough time to really thaw. I believe they saw 1 day to every 4 pounds if thawed in a refrigerator. So a 16 pound turkey would take about 4 days to thaw in the fridge. I always give mine one extra day as well to ensure it is thawed!

Thanks so much for participating in this conversation about "a mom's life."

This is a place where moms can be themselves. Remember that each mother's path looks a little different. Please keep your comments respectful and kind. Reasonable minds will disagree in a nice way.

So let's talk about it, using "our big girl words."

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